Jacobs: '79 Duke-UNC basketball game and the seven-point first half

February 19, 2014 

Sometimes what doesn’t happen speaks more eloquently than what does. Certainly that was true when Dean Smith, a master at manipulating the rules, led his Tar Heels to the locker room at halftime against Duke with a glaring zero displayed in North Carolina’s scoring column. “We were going to frustrate them and we were going to beat them,” said Al Wood, who eventually led UNC with 12 points in the game. “It just didn’t quite turn out that way.”

Most lists of the best meetings in the Duke-North Carolina men’s rivalry fail to include the schools’ 1979 regular-season finale, a battle for first place in the ACC. Yet for sheer intensity, for the improbable interplay of personality and design, for the way in which circumstance invested even the simplest basketball acts with the greatest of significance, few games before or since can match that tale of two very different halves.

As always, both teams began the game scoreless on the night of Feb. 24, 1979. But the goose egg for UNC persisted on the Cameron Indoor Stadium scoreboard. The longer UNC held the ball in that pre-shot clock era, burning time with its Four Corners delay, the more glaring became the absence of scoring, zero seeming to multiply, morphing from teasing realization to intriguing sideshow to impossible strategic theme.

Shutouts just don’t happen in basketball.

“It was pretty apparent they were not going to budge and neither were we,” recalls Mike Gminski, the 1979 ACC Player of the Year who anchored the sixth-ranked Blue Devils. “I remember just standing around, looking around. The crowd I think was a little back on its heels. It was kind of surreal.”

Trailing 7-0 at halftime in the battle of coaching wills, Smith unleashed his fourth-ranked Tar Heels in the final period. Each team scored 40 points in the final 20 minutes once the eventual first-round NBA draft choices, three on each squad, and their teammates were allowed to operate more freely.

“The fact that we won 47-40, that’s the basketball gods putting their imprint on the game,” says Bob Wenzel, then a Duke assistant coach under Bill Foster. “I’ll never forget that game. It was fantastic, fantastic.”

The Tar Heels were told the previous day they were going to spread the court to draw Duke out of its signature 2-3 matchup zone. “It was a stall tactic that was a tactic to score,” says Wood, then an All-ACC sophomore. “It wasn’t designed to not score.”

Running time off the clock to shorten a game had been an irritant for decades, particularly in the ACC and most especially in the ACC tournament. N.C. State coach Norman Sloan notoriously slowed action to a crawl in the 1968 tournament semifinals to beat Duke 12-10. The score was 4-2 at halftime. Sloan stalled again to win the 1970 final 42-39 in double-overtime against South Carolina. Most famously, Smith’s top-ranked team held the ball for the final 7:33 against No. 3 Virginia in the 1982 championship game, shackling Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Ralph Sampson and company.

Rules changes

The nationally televised ’82 ACC tournament final soon sparked rules changes meant to speed action, increase scoring and discourage zones. By the 1986-87 college season, a 3-pointer was added in tandem with a shot clock introduced the previous year.

To a large extent, the changes lent offenses more punch, although not as much as some might think. The ACC’s highest cumulative scoring occurred in 1976 (85.1 points per game). Half of the eight highest-scoring teams in conference history played prior to 1976. Even this season, despite well-publicized rules interpretations intended to boost scoring, six games involving ACC teams saw neither side reach 50 points. Two were played this month.

Back in 1979, Smith was paradoxically a proponent of a shot clock and the leading practitioner of deep-freeze tactics. “This was one of his ways of saying, ‘OK, if you’re not going to put in a shot clock, we’re going to hold the ball,’ ” Wood says of the opening half at Durham.

So when Vince Taylor, the Duke freshman getting his first career start, scored on a follow of a Gminski miss 33 seconds after tipoff, the cat-and-mouse game began. “I just remember we came down to the other end, we got in the zone and they were staying out on the perimeter,” says the 6-foot-11 Gminski, now a television basketball analyst. “Everybody was wondering what was going on.”

Three TV timeouts and more than 13 minutes passed before another point was scored. “We want basketball!” chanted the Cameron Crazies, then more creative than derivative. Foster often crouched in front of Duke’s bench, hand to mouth, studying the inaction. Smith remained seated, working his gum.

‘No, stay down’

The confident Blue Devils, returning every starter from their 1978 Final Four squad, attempted five shots in the period, making three. “We got behind and we stayed behind the whole way,” says Bill Guthridge, Smith’s longtime assistant. The Tar Heels took and missed two shots in the first half, one by forward Rich Yonakor and one by guard Dave Colescott. Yonaker’s jump shot missed everything, spawning today’s ubiquitous chant: “Air ball! Air ball!”

Meanwhile, Wenzel, now a TV basketball analyst, grew anxious on the Duke bench as the scoreboard seemed stuck. “Minutes are going by and minutes are going by and minutes are going by,” he recalls. “I’m sitting next to coach Foster and I say, ‘Coach, what do you think?’ And he ignores me. A few minutes go by and I say, ‘Hey, coach, should we come out?’ And he ignores me. Finally, I say, ‘Coach, what do you think?” He turns to me and he says, ‘I think Vince (Taylor) is going to get the MVP.’”

The second half was a bit of an anticlimax. Jim Spanarkel, an All-American guard that season, led all scorers with 17 points in his final home game. Duke had 10 turnovers compared to three for UNC, but made 73.9 percent of its field goat attempts (17-23) in tying the Tar Heels atop the ACC standings.

There was one last flurry of excitement in the final minute when the normally mild-mannered Gminski was ejected.

The 245-pound, 1979 All-American took umbrage at being persistently fouled and swung an elbow that apparently hit Wood in the nose. The 186-pound forward crumpled to the floor in front of the Duke bench. That brought Smith running. Upset, he began remonstrating with Gminski.

Except the blow barely grazed Wood. “I saw it coming, so I turned. But I went down. Today they call it flopping,” he says, laughing. “I was getting ready to jump up and (Smith) said, ‘No, stay down. Lay down.’ I was like, ‘I’m all right.’ He said, ‘No, stay down.’ He made me stay on the floor so he could get a chance to do something with the referees.”

Gminski too laughs in retrospect. “He essentially got me thrown out in my own building,” he says of Smith. But by then it was too late for the coach to alter the outcome of an oddly compelling game shaped by a strategic ploy that memorably backfired.

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